Hoping to push himself over the edge with Republican voters in the final hours of the Ohio Senate GOP primary contest, J.D. Vance arrived at a town hall outside of Columbus on Monday with two populist icons who were familiar faces to many in the crowd: Sen. Josh Hawley and conservative commentator Charlie Kirk.
In the final days of his campaign, the “Hillbilly Elegy” author has pulled out all the stops, from traversing the state with high-profile surrogates, calling in favors from former President Donald Trump, and flooding the airwaves with his final campaign ads. But there were still plenty of undecided voters at his second stop of the day.
Some came with questions they were hoping to get answered. Still hung up on the insults Vance hurled at Trump and his supporters during the 2016 presidential cycle, they wanted to see for themselves if his new alliance with the former President seemed genuine – something Trump himself insisted on during a telephone rally later Monday evening.
Others arrived with truly open ears. Not yet sold on a candidate, they came to learn more about Trump’s man in the race and why he awarded his coveted endorsement last month to a political newcomer like Vance.
Among them was Janet Schirtzinger, who was planning to vote for Vance in Tuesday’s primary until she saw an ad over the weekend highlighting his ties to Silicon Valley. Vance launched venture capital firm Narya in 2020 with financial support from tech billionaire and Paypal cofounder Peter Thiel and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt.
“I saw some stuff yesterday that bothered me. I liked him before I heard that and I like Hawley and Charlie Kirk, so I don’t know. We’ll see if he takes questions,” said Schirtzinger, noting that she is also considering rival candidate and Ohio state senator Matt Dolan.
Dolan has stood out as the only Trump-friendly candidate in the race who didn’t actively seek the former President’s stamp of approval like Vance, former Ohio state treasurer Josh Mandel, businessman Mike Gibbons and former Ohio GOP chairwoman Jane Timken. The soft-spoken state senator insisted on Monday that his distance from Trump was neither deliberate nor reflective of how he views Trump.
“I didn’t pick a lane. I’m being myself,” he told reporters as he knocked on doors around Grove City on Monday afternoon, noting that he believes Trump “was a good Republican president.”
“We know there is momentum behind us because we feel it at the doors we’re knocking on today. We feel it on the phone. We feel it at our rallies that we’re having,” Dolan later told CNN.
Deliberate or not, his approach may be paying off in the final days of the Senate primary. A Fox poll released last week showed Dolan, who has contributed $10.6 million of his own fortune to his campaign, and Vance as the only Republican candidates who had gained significant ground in the race since March.
“You have a lot of candidates who are splitting the Trump vote and that seems to be paying dividends for Matt Dolan,” said Matt Dole, a GOP strategist based in Columbus who described the Ohio Senate primary as one of the most unpredictable contests he’s ever seen in his state.
“I can’t think of another primary at this level where it could still go so many different ways this late in the game,” he said. “It’s perplexing that we still haven’t seen voters coalesce behind one candidate yet.”
‘If Trump can forgive’
Speaking to a modest crowd at a golf club outside of Columbus during the lunch hour on Monday, Vance took every opportunity to remind his audience that he had received Trump’s support and was committed to the former President’s agenda. The conservative author focused heavily on two issues that were raised by several voters in the crowd as top-of-mind: stopping the flow of illicit drugs into the US and fixing the current immigration system.
“I like that he isn’t a politician and is a young man,” said Phyllis Drakulich, who was invited to the town hall by her grandson – a big Vance fan.
As he echoed Trump throughout his stump speech, Vance still found skeptics in the crowd. At one point, Vance was interrupted by longtime Republican voter Kristen Lewis, who asked why he had criticized Trump before changing his tune as a Senate candidate to support the 45th President.
Lewis told CNN she was offended and infuriated by Vance’s remarks, which have been amplified in TV ads by Vance’s opponents for months in Ohio. As a “Never Trumper,” Vance openly mused about supporting then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election. He ultimately voted for independent candidate Evan McMullin.
“I wish he’d just tell the truth. I don’t know why he said that,” Lewis said as she left the lunchtime event. “I did not vote for Trump the first time around, but I guess if Trump can forgive what he said, for the betterment of America, I have to trust somebody.”
After the event, Vance told reporters that he regretted his past criticism of Trump, describing it as “a mistake because I was wrong.” Vance met with Trump repeatedly before earning his endorsement in late April and made similar comments at a rally with the former President in Delaware County last month.
“It’s okay to change your mind. In fact, you should change your mind when the facts change and I think that’s the truth about my view of President Trump,” he said Monday.
Trump, for his part, said in the telephone rally for Vance Monday, “He said some negative things about me, but he’s made up for it in spades.”
“I think I can say he’s 1000% with us. But everyone else has said negative things also. If I went by that, I’d never be able to endorse anybody,” the former President said.
Ultimately, Lewis said she planned to reluctantly support Vance after hearing from Hawley and Kirk, who took turns vouching for the candidate’s MAGA bona fides at his campaign stops on Monday. Hawley, the Republican senator from Missouri, said the fierce backlash to Vance’s campaign among the GOP establishment was a testament to his ability to disrupt the status quo.
For others, the hour-long event failed to sway them one way or another.
“He said people who voted for Trump did so for racist reasons. I hope he addresses that today,” said Kirk Allton of Columbus, who attended the afternoon town hall with his wife. Allton told CNN after the event that he was still on the fence and planned to do additional research before choosing a candidate on Tuesday.
The stakes are high
For Trump, Tuesday presents the biggest test yet of his strength as a Republican powerbroker. If Vance wins, the former President will begin a critical stretch of primaries with one victory under his belt and possible momentum behind some of the other candidates he’s endorsed.
If he loses, it could threaten Trump’s kingmaker status and cause voters in other states to potentially rethink who they will support in other contests this month.
For these reasons, the former President has invested heavily in helping to push Vance over the finish line, including taping robocalls and videos for the conservative author in addition to the last-minute tele-town hall Monday with thousands of Ohio voters, according to a person familiar with the matter.
This person said the former President is “feeling good” about Vance’s shot at winning the nomination.
“JD Vance has a little bit of an advantage being the author of a bestselling book about his background, which built his personality long before he got into this race,” said Dole, the GOP strategist, who believes the primary will ultimately be decided by how voters end up evaluating each candidate’s personality.
“We have self-funders running essentially across the board and that has changed the dynamic by moving this past a contest of name ID being the primary indicator of who is going to win to people wanting to get to know the candidates personally,” Dole said.
Whoever emerges as the winner on Tuesday is likely to face off in November against Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan in November, who Trump and others have privately and publicly described as a potentially tough competitor.
Asked on Monday if he believes the general election will be tough for the eventual Republican nominee, Dolan responded immediately.
“I do. I do,” he said.
This story has been updated with comments from former President Donald Trump.
CNN’s Paul LeBlanc contributed to this report.